Tomorrow is World Wetlands Day. The theme of this year is Healthy Wetlands, Healthy People, which is meant to emphasize that only with healthy wetlands can there be healthy life for everyone on the planet.
China is rich in wetlands because of its diverse geology, a long coastline, a large river network and large number of big lakes. It boasts 70 million hectares of wetland, accounting for 10 percent of the world wetland areas.
These wetlands in the form of marshes, lakes, coastal areas, river estuaries, reservoirs and paddy fields provide ideal wintering, staging and breeding sites for more than 200 species of birds. China has more than 200 of 947 internationally important wetlands in Asia, about 20 percent of the areas in the region.
Wetlands are important to our life. The range of products that wetlands can produce is remarkable: food such as fish, rice, medicinal plants, peat for fuel and gardens, and grasses and reeds for making paper and baskets. Wetlands act as giant sponges, soaking up rainfall and slowly releasing it over time. They are like highly efficient sewage treatment works, absorbing chemicals, filtering pollutants and sediments, breaking down suspended solids and neutralizing harmful bacteria.
Wetlands are also known as carbon reservoirs. Carbon is contained in trees and other vegetation and in litter, peats, organic soils, and sediments which have been built up over thousands of years. Wetlands also sequester carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis.
According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Human Development Report on Climate Change (2007/2008), peatland, one unique type of wetland, sequesters five times the amount of CO2 than a rainforest.
During the past 50 years, these valuable wetlands are being lost and converted to cropland, and large areas of peatland are degraded as a result of overgrazing. To date, 50 percent of China coastal marshes, 13 percent of lakes and large areas of natural marshes have been lost to agriculture and urban development.
The loss and degradation of wetlands have major implications to the lives of people. One of the major findings of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment undertaken during 2001-2005 is that, while the changes of ecosystems have contributed to the substantial net gains in human wellbeing and economic development, these gains have been achieved at growing costs to the degradation of the ecosystems. It is also acknowledged that the harmful effects of the degradation are being borne disproportionately by the poor.
To date China has established 470 wetland protected areas, 30 of which are designated as sites of international significance. These measures will no doubt jump start the immense task of reviving wetlands in China.
The United Nations in China has joined with government agencies to address the degradation of wetlands. Through the Wetland Conservation and Sustainable Use Project and EU-China Biodiversity Program, UNDP has assisted the government of China in achieving the overall objective of maintaining the health of its wetlands through the mainstreaming of them into sectoral programs, and plans at national and local levels. The United Nations Environment Program through a global project has supported the local governments of Sichuan province to restore water-absorbing functions of the Ruoergai peatlands, degraded from dredging of water for cattle grazing.
Wetlands in China have global significance and are a common asset of mankind. To maintain healthy wetlands in China will not only build a healthy life for its people, but also set a good example of harmonious coexistence between man and nature to other countries, and developing countries in particular. The United Nations in China will work in close partnership with the international community, governments at all levels, non-governmental organizations and the private sector to achieve this common goal for the sake of present and future generations.
The author is the United Nations Resident Coordinator/UNDP Resident Representative in China
(China Daily February 1, 2008)